For me, October is “Hammer Country”—the season of watching Hammer Films’ Gothic horror classics from the 1950s–1970s. Since we finally have a North American Blu-ray release of The Devil Rides Out (1968), that’s the first film from their catalogue I want to examine this October.
But since The Devil Rides Out is based on a best-selling and influential novel, I’ll take a literary horror detour first and look at Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 thriller before moving on to the film.
In August I examined the influential film noir Phantom Lady, which was part of the 1944 wave of stylish crime films that established noir as the new mode of murder-dramas, even if the term film noir was still years from general use. Because Phantom Lady was adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich, the most important literary noir author and one of my personal favorite writers, I followed up with a post about the 1943 book. After that, it was impossible to stop me from moving forward to Woolrich’s next novel, which would also be turned into a classic film noir a few years later: The Black Angel.
The Black Angel was published in 1943, the same year as Phantom Lady. It’s the fifth novel from Woolrich’s “main period” (1934–1948), when he wrote the majority of his suspense fiction. It has a plot with similarities to Phantom Lady, but it also corrects a number of the errors of that book to create a more personal and desperate story with less need for a long explanation clogging up the last twenty pages. Woolrich took the Carol Richman chapters from Phantom Lady and imagined what a story about rescuing a man from Death Row might look like if told from her perspective.
Much of Cornell Woolrich’s best suspense writing comes from his deep well of short stories and novellas. Numerous collections were published during his lifetime, most using the William Irish pseudonym, even though the stories first appeared in magazines under Woolrich’s name.
One of the most successful of these collections is After-Dinner Story, published by Lippincott in October 1944 when Woolrich’s popularity was rising because of the success of Phantom Lady. It went through numerous paperback editions after the initial hardcover release, sometimes with the alternate title Six Times Death. It was included in Lippincott’s 1960 hardcover omnibus The Best of William Irish along with Phantom Lady and Deadline at Dawn.
After-Dinner Story contains six stories, one never previously published: the title story (Black Mask, January 1938), “The Night Reveals” (Story, April 1936), “An Apple a Day” (first publication), “Marihuana” (Detective Fiction Weekly, 3 May 1941), “Murder Story” (Detective Fiction Weekly, 11 September 1937), and the first appearance of the story originally published as “It Had to Be Murder” (Dime Detective, February 1942) under its forever title “Rear Window.” Yes, that one.
This afternoon I learned of the death of Charles R. Saunders, the amazing sword-and-sorcery author who helped open up the fantasy adventure genre to Black heroes thanks to his series of stories about his characters Imaro and Dossouye. Saunders was 74 years old, and that’s still too young for such a tremendous talent. Like Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman, another tragic death that hit us this week, Saunders was a vital figure in the creation of the modern Black superhero. (Edit: It appears Saunders died in May, but it only became public now.)
This post discusses major plot points and the ending for the novel Phantom Lady.
Author Cornell Woolrich has often been on my mind this summer. He’s a poet for isolated times, a preacher of anxiety. He also had a potent influence on my writing and was one of the catalysts for the creation of Turn Over the Moon, but that’s a subject for later. After watching the movie version of Phantom Lady (1944) last week, Woolrich’s 1942 novel pulled me back for the first time in years. Although one of his best known books and an important icon in noir—the title itself conjures visions of classic film noir—it’s an odd work I’ve never embraced as fully as many of his other novels from the same period.
Phantom Lady first appeared under the title “Phantom Alibi” as a six-part serial in Detective Fiction Magazine for 1942. Lippincott published the hardcover in August, with Woolrich using the “William Irish” pseudonym for the first time. The book was an immediate success and Woolrich sold the movie rights to Universal in October. This set up “William Irish” to develop a parallel career to Cornell Woolrich as a top suspense writer, even though anyone who looked at the serial version and saw Woolrich’s name on it would’ve known what was up.